Thursday, December 17, 2009

USAF, Lockheed mum about new "Beast of Kandahar" drone

Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa, editing by Matthew Lewis and Carol Bishopric

The Air Force and Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) on Monday acknowledged use of a new radar-evading drone over Afghanistan, but remained tight-lipped about a plane that has been dubbed the "Beast of Kandahar."

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said the U.S. military was continuing to step up its use of a broad array of remotely piloted planes. They range from the size of a small laptop to that of the high-altitude Global Hawk surveillance plane built by Northrop Grumman Corp (NOC.N).

"This has had profound impacts on our Air Force, and in the last eight years we have come to embrace it," Donley told the annual Reuters Aerospace and Defense Summit in Washington. The Air Force is dealing with the significant changes that greater use of unmanned planes entailed.

Last week marked the public debut of the newest unmanned plane, the RQ-170, which was built by Lockheed. "It is a low observable ISR (intelligence, surveillance , reconnaissance) platform that's deployed in support of combatant commanders," Donley told the summit. "That's about all we're going to say on that subject."

An Air Force fact sheet said the new aircraft was controlled from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. That is where Air Force pilots also control the service's fleet of Predator drones, which are built by privately held General Atomics. It said the program leverages development work done by Lockheed and government efforts to rapidly develop and produce stealthy drones that could be used to gather intelligence and surveillance to locate targets.

Lockheed Chief Executive Robert Stevens, who also appeared at the Reuters summit, said the new plane was an example of the company's commitment to providing the military "the most advanced technology systems applications that they would need to meet the demands of their most highly sophisticated missions."

Donley said the military was continuing to learn how it could best use the technologies involved in unmanned planes. It now prefers using the term "remotely piloted aircraft" to show that such weapons are still heavily supported by pilots and other staff on the ground, he said.

Over the years, the military has used "unmanned aerial vehicles" and "unmanned aerial systems" to describe such planes, but those terms veil how much of a manned effort operating the planes really is, Donley said. For example, it takes about 200 people to support a single Global Hawk, he said.

The Pentagon planned to develop a family of new long-range strike aircraft or bombers that would include an unmanned vehicle, but details still needed to be worked out during a more formal research program over the next year. The U.S. government's use of drones to attack insurgents in Pakistan, blamed for some civilian deaths, have raised some questions about the proper role for the airplanes.

"I don't think there's a proper or improper role. I think you take the technology and your experience...and figure out where it seems to make sense for operational reasons, and then take it from there," Donley said when asked about the issue.



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